Classical review: Murray gives the king of instruments the royal treatment

MurrayEvery year, some of the world’s greatest organ virtuosos come to Nashville to play on the Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s magnificent Schoenstein pipe organ. On Sunday afternoon, it was organist Thomas Murray’s turn.

One of America’s foremost concert instrumentalists, Murray is a long-time professor of music at Yale University. He’s best known for his interpretations of the Romantic repertoire. The music of Elgar, Mendelssohn, Franck and Saint-Saëns are among his specialties.

His recital at Laura Turner Concert Hall was painfully brief – it lasted only about an hour without intermission.  But it was chock-full of Murray’s beloved Romantic music, which allowed him to make a big impact in just a short time.

He opened with the one non-Romantic piece on his program – J.S. Bach’s Concerto in C major, BWV 595. Modeled after the Italian concertos of the day, this unusual work consisted of just one movement instead of the usual three. But it was still a concerto, with solo and ensemble parts clearly outlined on different manuals. Murray isn’t known as a Bach specialist. Nevertheless, his reading was thoroughly enjoyable. He played the concerto’s rippling figurations with sparkling virtuosity. Just as importantly, his reading was full of orchestral color and nuance.

Murray followed with four of his favorite musical calling cards – the Four Sketches for Organ or Pedal Piano by Robert Schumann. As Murray pointed out in his informative program notes, Schumann’s pedal-piano pieces were usually exercises in contrapuntal writing – Schumann adored Bach and spent years immersing himself in the Well-Tempered Clavier. Four Sketches, in contrast, are melody-and-accompaniment pieces written in the same simple form found in many of his piano miniatures. All of these pieces are charmers, and Murray played them with warmth and heartfelt immediacy.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Two Welsh Folk-Tune Arrangements, which came next, were among the shortest works on the brief program. They were also among the most lyrically appealing. Murray played the opening “Romanza” with sweet intimacy. He tossed off the “Toccata” with playful energy.

Edward Elgar’s Carillon, Op 75, is an organ transcription of an orchestral piece. Written in the aftermath of the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, the work is filled with passages of dulcet charm and heroic grandeur. Murray played the piece with the right  amount of Romantic sweep.

The last work on the program, César Franck’s Grande Pièce Symphonique, Op.17, was the afternoon’s main course. Lasting about 25 minutes, it was nearly as long as all of the other pieces on the program combined. Written in 1862, this “Symphony” is fact a one-movement sonata arranged in cyclical form – the various themes develop and repeat in altered form over the course of the sonic journey. Murray played this huge work with a deft technique and with as much color as you might hear in an orchestra performance.  Somehow, he even made some of this work’s  most pot-boiler-like melodies seem noble. Now that’s the mark of a master.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.